Burnt out and bearing family obligations, many Canadian women are changing course — or exiting the workforce
Expert says number of women exiting labour market 'should cause alarm'
At 27, Sarah Shahid had already worked for a few years in Toronto's fast-paced financial services industry. She didn't imagine a global pandemic would lead her to quit.
But when the pandemic arrived in Canada in earnest in March 2020, her company laid off staff, making her busier than ever, and turning her already cramped apartment into a makeshift home office.
"It felt like I was living in my office in a way and that I need to be available and online all the time," said Shahid, adding work became so busy that she struggled to complete basic tasks like cooking.
Shahid hit a breaking point in May 2021, quitting her job without a new opportunity lined up, saying she needed to "cut this toxic job out of my life."
"I was like — do I want to give all my time and energy to a company that doesn't care for me, because at any time I could have been one of those people that they cut off. Do I want to dedicate all my time and mental health to this job?"
Three months later in Surrey, Kathleen Yang, who worked in the non-profit sector, also left her long-time job, finding herself in a state of "complete burnout."
"I personally got into some bad habits where sending one email late at night would turn into full-blown working on a project," she said, adding she felt her health was suffering. Yang quit her job and planned not to work for at least two months to fully recover.
Canada's great resignation
People have been leaving the workforce in droves as the pandemic stretched into its second year, leading to a phenomenon being colloquially referred to as "the great resignation." According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, four million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021.
Those numbers aren't tracked in Canada, but researchers say smaller studies suggest the trend of job quitting and job switching is happening in Canada, too.
An RBC study published in the spring found that nearly 100,000 working-age Canadian women have completely left the workforce since the pandemic started. The figure for men is more than 10 times smaller.
Vass Bednar, executive director of McMaster University's Master of Public Policy Program, said she believes if men were leaving the Canadian workforce at the same rate, there would be greater concern.
"Women have disappeared from the labour market during the pandemic," said Bednar.
"It should cause alarm and we should better understand who they are, what sectors, do they plan on coming back, and what would have to be true for them to come back."
'I'm at a total freeze'
Mika McKinnon is a geophysicist who, prior to the pandemic, taught as an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, worked in science consulting and had major research contracts. As the pandemic brought workplaces to a standstill, many of her projects halted.
She also had her first child, whom she now stays home to care for. She said she never imagined her return to the workforce would be indefinitely postponed because she feared her unvaccinated child could be exposed to COVID-19 if she put her in daycare.
"My partner and I looked at each other and went, 'alright, you have the full-time job, and the pension, and the regular work hours, and I have the contract jobs ... Which of us is going to stay home with the kid?' And here I am," she said.
"Career-wise this should be one of my times when I am nicely settled in my expertise and instead I'm at a total freeze ... I feel frustrated, I feel forgotten, I feel resigned."
Bednar said while the pandemic has allowed some workers to re-train and leave jobs that left them unfulfilled, it has also created an untenable situation for working mothers. The number of women leaving jobs in the care economy, including teachers and nurses, has only made pandemic parenting more difficult.
"It's either a pandemic epiphany where there's an awakening of sorts, or new motivation — and then on the other hand, exits that are kind of forced exits, people feeling like they don't want to or can't keep up their professional obligations," she said.
Shahid and Yang both returned to work after taking two to three months off.
Shahid now works full-time in advocacy work focusing on labour rights — a field she said she was drawn to as worker safety became highlighted during the pandemic. Yang said she works about 10 hours a week and is unsure whether she wants to work full-time again.
"We condition a lot of women to feel like we need to perform and give everything at the expense of ourselves, and there comes a certain point where you just can't do it anymore," said Yang.